Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Half a Motherland Part 3: Vote

“The faceless, sexless, raceless proletariat. The faceless, raceless, classless category of “all women.” Both creations of white Western self-centeredness.” - Adrienne Rich

In spring semester, campaigns for elected student government positions at my school are in full swing, and I’m reminded constantly of the identities we prioritize with every candidate's Facebook post. Someone promises to represent the South Asian community at Berkeley, posting Instagram photos from Holi and a “Dosas and Mimosas” night hosted by the South Indian students’ group. A frat guy I've never met, poised to uphold the interests of the ROTC and International Relations communities. I’m kind of shocked that IR even counts as a “community”; when I think back to my last Development Studies class, I remember looking around at a group comprised of profoundly disparate elements: a few international students who rarely spoke up in class, a lot of white girls in athleisure leggings and Birkenstocks who sipped iced chai lattes out of mason jars.

One year a professional co-ed association hosts a raucous blacklight party for Halloween. Everywhere are transnational elites in training--there are Asian products of American schools in Middle Eastern expat compounds, people whose neutral-sounding English exists on a geographically unplaceable plane of its own. They grind on each other and down Jell-O shots, sold 4 for a dollar.

I look around this room of Cheshire cats--our grinning teeth gleam purplish white in the blacklight--and muse, Is this my community?

Before I’m even done asking the question, I’m shaking my head.

If my academic interest can’t define my identity group, then what should? Ethnicity? That doesn’t work either. There are some Asians who are scions of industrialists made rich by post-market reform prosperity in their home countries. These kids pay enough tuition to sustain the rest of us. I see them walking in big groups sometimes, swathed in Burberry trenches and wearing Nike Flyknits. Their rapidfire chatter is familiar and yet, their skin color and language render them no more “my people” than bushmen in a NatGeo issue.

Then there are the Asian-American students who remind me of old friends and high school classmates. They discuss carrying the weight of the “model minority” and the expectations of eager parents on their shoulders. These are expectations that I can’t fully relate to...partially since I think the “model minority” is a myth that engenders continued racial oppression of other people of color, but mostly because my parents never toed the Tiger Mom line with me. (I got a C in a class once and they congratulated me on passing.) The most burdensome expectation they had for me? That I would challenge traditional hierarchies and oppressive norms. But if I sought to build community based on that expectation, I’d be left high and dry. Despite that whole Communist Revolution thing, “resisting hierarchy” is not an experience that I find widely relatable among Asian-American friends in describing their families and upbringing. Rather, a sort of apolitical inoffensiveness rules the day.

One girl running for student government at Berkeley even says in her campaign literature, “Growing up in a traditional Asian family, I’ve been taught to always care about others and respect others’ backgrounds.”

After all, Confucius say: “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Jokes aside, this student government election is a microcosm of broader tendencies in American politics. It is frequently cast as the Holy Land of left-wing politics in the United States, but it’s less liberal than you might think. While some college Republican groups across the country (e.g., Harvard’s) broke with the national party to disavow Donald Trump’s candidacy during the election, the Berkeley College Republicans supported Donald Trump. In the wake of protests surrounding right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulous’s visit to Berkeley, the campus magazine where I’m an editor hosted a debate between the Cal Democrats and Berkeley College Republicans on the subject of free speech. The Cal Dem representative was a white guy, while the spokesperson for the BCR was an Indian student (from India, not Indian-American).

During the audience Q&A portion, I asked a question that many were probably thinking as they looked at these debaters: had President Trump done enough, quickly enough, to respond to hate crimes in the wake of his election? I alluded to hate crimes against Asian-Americans, including the killing of Srinivas Kuchibhotla in Kansas, or Harnish Patel’s murder outside of his home in South Carolina.

The BCR debater took the microphone and said that Mr. Trump should have acted more quickly, but that people should not be so quick to blame Trump for all the actions carried out by his followers. An Indian-American friend and I exchanged a glance. She rolled her eyes, and in a look, a sentiment passed between us: how can he be a Republican? After all that has happened? Conservative journalist Michelle Malkin has said, “Minority conservatives hold a special place of gutter contempt in the minds of unhinged liberals, who can never accept the radical concept of a person of color rejecting identity politics.” I guess that in that moment, we were those unhinged liberals.

Once upon a time, to try to be a Republican politician and the member of a racial minority at the same time meant purposefully denuding yourself of anything that reeked of the “ethnic.” Bobby Jindal changed his name from Piyush to Bobby, converted to Christianity, gave a speech in which he said that he was tired of “hyphenated Americans,” and commissioned a gubernatorial portrait widely mocked on social media for its skin tone, far whiter than Jindal is in reality. Although these actions elicited scrutiny and derision from many in the Indian-American community, they were good politics in Louisiana: Jindal served two terms as governor.

Today, perhaps you can be a player in Republican politics without needing to disavow or minimize your racial identity in the same way as Jindal. For some Asian-Americans, supporting Trump made sense not in spite of identity alignment, but because of it. During the 2016 election, some Indian-Americans with ties to Hindu nationalist groups saw Trump as a natural ally due to his rhetoric on Muslims, securing the borders, and tough talk that evoked comparison to India’s right-wing prime minister, Narendra Modi. Trump appeared in an advertisement where he said, in Hindi unintelligible to native speakers (as Jimmy Kimmel would document in one of his show’s man-on-the-street segments), “Ab ki baar Trump sarkaar,” or “This time, Trump government”--a nod to a famous Modi campaign slogan.

Relying on minority groups to uniformly be good Democrats had lulled me into false security. I was shocked every time I learned that an Asian-American friend’s parents were supporting Trump. Trump’s rhetoric may have stoked the flames of white supremacist indignation, but this was not frightening enough for highly-educated men and women with college-aged children begging them to vote for Clinton; they chose instead to vote for the man with the bad hair, three marriages, and infamous lines on pussy grabbing.

Then there are people for whom race doesn’t register as an important identity category that affects daily life.

At the invitation of a friend I went to a meeting of a campus group called South Asians for Social Justice once. The meeting was at her house. In its cozy, carpeted living room, we sat around on couches and ladled hot chai tea out of a massive pot. Despite the welcoming environment of the SASJ meeting, I felt like a bit of an intruder as a non-South Asian. I messaged my boyfriend and his roommate (both Indian-American) for backup. I didn't expect them to come, but they messaged back, shockingly: “On our way.”

The group had started a silent writing session about the prompt “Write about a time when you felt brown/racialized” (i.e., a time some external impetus had made you aware of your difference, your non-whiteness). We were all quietly scribbling things down on pieces of paper when the door creaked open and my boyfriend and his roommate bounded in. The roommate was wearing a giant Seahawks jersey and high-top shoes; in the midst of this quiet living room, he seemed like an especially loud interloper. As my friend re-explained the prompt and they shot each other blank glances, I started wondering if inviting them had maybe been a mistake.

We finished up writing and people began to share their moments. Listening, I sat aghast. Some had been the only brown kids at school. They had had classmates who called them curry-eaters, “sand niggas,” and terrorists.

Neither my boyfriend nor his roommate described an incident from their own lives.

We all walked out of the house after the meeting was over, and it didn’t take long for them to begin talking.

“These kids are...like, way different,” the roommate said.

My boyfriend nodded. For them, he explained, it was difficult to write about the “moment they’d felt brown” because they’d grown up in an area where they were part of a sizable, and empowered, Asian-American population.

In the Seattle area, the Asian-American community is well-developed and prosperous. When racism and Redmond come up in the same conversation, it relates to anti-blackness: the Seahawks player Kam Chancellor had the police called on him for “suspicious activity” after he looked through the windows of a gym, and a black-owned business received a KKK uniform in the mail. These incidents highlight the dark underbelly of a community where kids ride their bikes around wide suburban streets and people come out every summer to cheer on parade floats and eat cotton candy at the Derby Days festival. But these incidents also highlight the extent to which the Asian-American community in Redmond has been immune; no one would tell me to “go back to China,” or make comments about the shape of my eyes, if I were sitting at a bus stop in Redmond.

We went to high schools where there were countless classmates who looked like us. If the guy calling you a curry-eater or a chink looks like you, it’s not an expression of racial superiority as much as an expression of in-group-ness--the girlfriend-to-girlfriend “sup bitches” of racial groups. After high school we’d landed at Berkeley--where the freshman population in 2016 was 42.3% Asian.

But I’d spent a lot of time outside of Redmond and Berkeley--and I had white family members, so my understanding of myself as a person of color had happened early. It was a revelation to me, that my boyfriend and his roommate had never had some moment of looking in the mirror and seeing themselves as racialized subjects, thinking, “Society sees me differently from someone white,” thinking “this is something that could harm me.”

I wonder if Srinivas Kuchibhotla or Harnish Patel had.


Trump’s win highlighted the extensive mobilization of white nationalists, with the rise of the “alt-right” in public consciousness and the growing normalization of many of its main figures. For participants in these movements, non-white people pose a spectral threat to the integrity of a nation figured as necessarily white. Steve Bannon, Trump’s controversial political aide, has made repeated references to the racist French novel The Camp of the Saints in speeches about his political ideology. The novel features the shores of Europe being overrun with hordes of dark-skinned foreigners, and it explains a lot about the sentiments of white nationalists. If you feel under threat, of course you would form an identity group. But the obvious problem is that white people in America are not under real, material threat; you need look only at any picture of a Trump cabinet meeting to reassure yourself that the position of (particularly old and male) white people is on top of the world.

Then there are MRAs, or “Men’s Rights Activists.” Like claiming that whiteness is a status that needs to be protected from destruction, claiming that being male means being a member of an oppressed group in society is what some might call an “alternative fact”--but one with harmful consequences. MRAs have spewed vitriol at female writers and gamers on the internet, preached the acceptability of violence against women, and advocated for sexually aggressive tactics that frequently venture into the realm of harassment and even assault.

Columbia professor Mark Lilla writes in the New York Times, “Liberals should bear in mind that the first identity movement in American politics was the Ku Klux Klan, which still exists. Those who play the identity game should be prepared to lose it.”

Centralizing identity and the role it plays in life has led to substantial political gains for many marginalized group, and society as a whole; therefore, unlike Lilla, I am not prepared to reject it wholesale. We must have some bulwarks to keep ourselves from falling into the trap of casting ourselves as universal subjects--the “faceless proletariat” or “all women” that Adrienne Rich critiques. If we really mean “male workers,” or “white workers” (as many trade unions historically did), or “white women,” or “rich women,” then we do truth an injustice by claiming this language of universal membership.

And the truth is that in many situations our outcomes depend on facets of our identity. It’s harder to get a job with a “black name” (National Bureau of Economic Research), harder to get your pain taken seriously by a doctor if you’re a woman (The Atlantic). These realities are something that the “identity politics are divisive” camp of people would be wise to pay attention to. Political coalitions have a duty to interrogate their own impulses to universalize, and acknowledge the role that our various identities play in our lives. It’s just the right thing to do.

Ironically, many critiques of identity politics and its divisiveness come from white men; but no one does segregation by identity quite like white people in America. Today, you can still see the legacy of housing policies that prevented black Americans from living in certain neighborhoods. You can go to places where housing is so racially split that you can walk from one end of town to the other and see a sea change in skin tone. Developers created all-white suburbs, and there was “white flight” out of urban areas. Housing isn’t the only staging ground for segregation; marriage is another. 2013 Pew Research Center data shows that white people are the group least likely to “marry out” (just 7% of white newlyweds in 2013 married someone of a different race, compared to 28% of Asians).

This wouldn’t be surprising if you knew what white social circles looked like: a non-partisan research group, the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), shows that a full 75% of whites have “entirely white social networks without any minority presence.”

Two-thirds of white people in America have completely white social circles.

For minorities, there is tremendous value in groups of other people of color; in some spaces, a certain kind of self-segregation may be protective. But in places like where I grew up, self-segregating was not so much about consolidating power for solidarity in the face of racist society (Asian-Americans were doing well in Redmond) as it was about the economic reality of our ZIP code that placed us, largely, in proximity to wealthy white and Asian families.

I want to be cautious about following the historical impulse of a dominant social group trying to protect its “purity” or its property values. No matter the rationale for forming clans around ethnoracial identity, we must always consciously seek encounters--pushing for everything from increased media representation of minorities to mixed-income housing--with people who are unlike ourselves.

All of us must resist the impulse to segregate.

After all, self-segregation relies on a belief that our fates are not all inextricably bound up with each other’s; Hindu-Americans for Trump cheered on the idea of a strongman who talked tough on banning Muslims and being “strong on terror,” forgetting or ignoring that many white nationalist Trump supporters can’t tell the difference between a Muslim and a Hindu, or a Muslim and a Sikh--to them, all people of a certain skin tone are part of the same Camp of the Saints-esque invading dark horde.

I hope that we can build political discourse that is inclusive of a wide range of identities, that gives individuals space to discuss how their many varied categories and allegiances produce the realities of their daily lives. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders both met with leaders of the Black Lives Matter, and Clinton talked about implicit racism in one of the presidential debates--exposing some Americans to the concept for the first time. It is possible, and indeed necessary, for politicians to dialogue with identity-focused groups in good faith and bring their concerns to the national political stage. And it is the willingness to do that actively and consistently--not the color of their skin or the community they come from or the languages they speak--that should win votes.

The expectation of dialogue should apply to relations between minority groups as well. Letters for Black Lives builds solidarity for Black Lives Matter by offering a letter that minority folks and children of immigrants (especially Asian-Americans) can send to parents, grandparents, and other elders struggling to understand the necessity of supporting BLM. The crowd-sourced letter has been translated into numerous languages

From the Letters for Black Lives Matter project:

“In fighting for their own rights, Black activists have led the movement for opportunities not just for themselves, but for us as well. Black people have been beaten, jailed, even killed fighting for many of the rights that Asian Americans enjoy today. We owe them so much in return. We are all fighting against the same unfair system that prefers we compete against each other.

When someone is walking home and gets shot by a sworn protector of the peace — even if that officer’s last name is Liang — that is an assault on all of us, and on all of our hopes for equality and fairness under the law.”

What I appreciate about the Letters for BLM project is that although the letters cite the profound debt owed by Asian-Americans to African-American civil rights leaders and community organizers, the primary logic of the argument that we should support BLM comes not from a self-serving or clannish place but rather a sense of universal humanity--that an assault on a black person “is an assault on all of us,” that we are all fighting against the same injustice. Let’s follow the lead of projects like Letters for Black Lives and build solidarity across identity groups on the basis of our shared hopes and shared humanity.

During Spring Break, I leave Berkeley for my parents’ home in suburban Sonoma County--a place of rolling verdant hills, chicken farms, and houses with manicured lawns and “Black Lives Matter” yard signs. My Ye Ye and Po Po are visiting, and Ye Ye asks me one day what my plan for the day is.

“I’m going to work on an article that I’ve been working on for a long time,” I manage in broken Chinese.

“What’s the topic?”

“It’s--uhhh, it’s really hard to say in Chinese,” I fumble for Google Translate on my phone and type in “identity politics.”

Ye Ye looks at my screen and his brow furrows. “What does this mean?”

“I don’t think this translation is correct,” I say. “Um. It’s...people using their...um, themselves? Their culture, their habits, ethnicity? To...um...say that a politician should be supported?”

“What’s your argument?”

“That people should support people who can improve society as a whole and other groups, not just their own people. Like, even if you’re Asian-American, you should support black people.” I suck in my breath, waiting for a disapproving response from the man I associate most with Chinese nationalism. “We’re all Americans.”

“Not just Americans,” Ye Ye says. “We’re all renlei.”

“What does renlei mean?”

“Human,” he says in English.


  1. I wouldn't trust Google Translate with a phrase like "identity politics" that's been in widespread use only recently. My "go to" tool for that (if Wikipedia doesn't yet have a Chinese version of the article) is Jukuu, which lists English and Chinese sentences in parallel, gleaned from dual-language publications written with human translators; it tends to be good at "current events" phrases. Putting "identity politics" into Jukuu pulls up the title of a conference called "Conference on National Development, Identity Politics and Concepts of Feminism" with translation 国家发展、认同政治和女权运动概念会议. Then we either battle with the characters oucselves, or use dictionary tools like Wenlin or Pleco, to figure out that the part of this meaning "identity politics" is 认同政治 rèntóng zhèngzhì. Hopefully that will mean something to a Chinese who's read news about it, but someone who hasn't heard of it might still need an explanation (yours is beautifully simple).

  2. And sorry I typed my last comment on a phone and pressed C instead of R (they are next to each other on my Dvorak keyboard layout...)